He looked bizarre, totally out of place, this Pakistani climber in ragged, old mountaineering clothes, alone, shaking our tent while we tried to sleep, asking frantically for a satellite phone,” says University of Colorado alum and Denver-based mountaineer Alex Harz, recounting a night high on a flank of North America’s tallest peak, Denali. “He was hard to understand, but that was the first we learned of the Japanese climbers’ deaths … three, four, five guys got caught in an avalanche and were pulled down a crevasse that they’ll never come out of.”
It would be a startling way to wake up; the encounter took place late at night after an exhausting climb, when the 24-hour sun had dipped just below the horizon, leaving a glow along the horizon and the mountain in deep cold.
“That was when it really hit me,” says Ben Sorenson, the other member of the two-man team, “We’re in a place where we could easily be killed. That could have been us down that hole.”
Harz and Sorenson were just a few days into an unaided expedition to the summit of Denali, called Mt. McKinley until 1980 when the State of Alaska Board of Geographic Names reverted to the peak’s Native American name, meaning “The High One.”
Denali, at 20,320 feet, was to be the second peak in their quest to summit the highest mountain on each continent, and a test of their training, preparation and toughness. Though they had climbed Argentina’s Aconcagua (22,841 feet) and tested their bodies at extreme elevations, the climbers would learn that each mountain has a distinct personality, and dangers all its own.
“This is Denali,” Sorenson says. “And it makes all the rules.”
Denali, the mountain, seemed to figure in the climbers’ minds as a great, powerful being, capable of wrath or benevolence, but never allowing climbers to relax.
To access Denali, climbers from all over the world fly into Talkeetna, Alaska. The mountain is only accessed by a small bush plane outfitted with skis rather than wheels, which lands on Kahiltna glacier, a shifting, ever changing runway laced with hidden crevasses. The Harz/Sorenson expedition, however, was nearly ended even before it made it that far.
“I walked into this little hostel in Talkeetna, and just as I opened the door, I heard a snarl and felt the dog’s fangs rip into my thigh,” Harz says. “I freaked, backpedaled and tried to slam the door on the thing, but he had his shoulders through the door and bit me a couple more times before I could get my pack between us and push the damn thing back in the hostel.”
Shocked and assessing the wounds, the two were then confronted by the hostel’s owner.
“She says, ‘Why’d you scare Mack?’” Sorenson says, laughing. “Why did we scare Mack? Damn, lady.”
A meeting followed in which Harz and Mack sat on the sofa, gazing into one another’s eyes as Pat, the aged hostel owner, counseled them to just be friends, so that neither man nor beast would suffer any psychological trauma.
The dog attack raised serious questions about the expedition.
“At elevation, your immune system begins to shut down, it’s so overtaxed and under-oxygenated,” Harz says. “If that wound goes septic on the mountain, depending on our location and the weather, we might be beyond help. It might be fatal.”
What was more, several of the piercing wounds were directly where his chaffing harness straps would ride.
Though “summit fever” is not a genuine medical condition, many mountaineers have died through denial of risks and an overwhelming desire to summit.
“It would be heartbreaking for the expedition to fail then and there,” Sorenson says. “Thousands of dollars, six months of training — we decided to go for it.”
The climbers slept in a shed at the end of the small runway. Weather had been terrible on Denali for weeks, and when a window of opportunity arose for the flight to get off the ground, they had to be ready to scramble onto a small plane.
“You don’t fly when you want to fly, you fly when Denali lets you,” Harz says.
Luck, however, rejoined the team, and they were able to get out the next day. Like transiting between worlds, the two flew from the brilliant green Alaskan summer and entered a realm of perpetual snow and ice, wind, cold and danger. As the plane rounded a set of peaks, Denali, at long last, came into view.
“I was taken aback by how big it was, and how beautiful,” Sorenson says. “I switched into expedition mode. It’s beautiful, but it’s also a place humans aren’t really meant to be.”
“The plane bounces four or five times, skids to a stop, and the pilot does a 180-spin, slams open the door, and they shoo you out fast, he hammers the throttle and the plane is gone, and you’re standing there in this absolute silence as the motor fades away in the distance,” Harz says.
Recent warmer temperatures on Denali have made the mountain more unstable. Rocks that have been frozen in place for millennia are beginning to thaw and roll. Some, like a slingstone, can crush a climber’s bones; other, boulder-sized pieces can crush a person entirely.
“The danger shifts, but it’s always there,” Harz says. “Lower on the mountain, there’s crevasse danger, higher up, it’s more objective; rockfall, slab fall, ridge fall, rolling seracs the size of houses. … We heard avalanches all day long when the sun was out.”
In the 97 years since the first ascent of Denali in 1913, 106 climbers died in the attempt at its summit and a safe return home. Climbers face a range of dangers, among them, high altitude cerebral and pulmonary edema, frostbite and dehydration. Because the mountain traps solar radiation, the temperature can go from hot to below zero as the sun slips behind a ridge. The National Park Service reports that only 52 percent of climbers reach the summit.
“From the time you get off the plane until you get back on, you’re roped up,” Harz says. Conventional climbing wisdom has it that, to be safe on a mountain like Denali, a minimum three-man rope team is necessary. If one man punches through the surface and finds himself plunging into a crevasse, it is up to his teammates to react quickly, anchoring themselves in the snow with their ice axes. If the dangling climber is trapped upside down or between the crushing weight of his pack and sled, he may need assistance in climbing back out. In the case of a two-man team, it’s up to him to extricate himself while his partner hangs on. Being roped to multiple members, however, doesn’t ensure safety, as the pair would shortly discover.
Each hauling 70-80 pounds of food, equipment, and stove fuel on their backs and towing a similar amount on sleds, Harz and Sorenson met the first major obstacle leaving their base camp on Kahiltna. Heartbreak Hill first descends some 600 feet, giving climbers their first taste of the infernally aggravating process of being pulled by their sled — like walking a 100-pound Jack Russell — before again ascending 1,000 feet to camp 1 at 7,600 feet.
Dejected teams shuffled past on their way down the mountain, defeated by weeks of constant storms.
“They looked haggard, just beaten and broken,” Harz says. “One guy, a Montenegran, passed us saying, ‘I have not seen the sun for weeks!’ We were going up, and I thought, ‘What are we going into?.’”
They busied themselves with the various tasks necessary to live on the mountain. Wielding meter-long collapsible saws, they cut blocks of ice to build shelters to shield their tents from the fierce winds that constantly raked the mountain. Ice must constantly be melted for water — when it came to the stove, the freeze-dried food they packed ranked second to the necessity of hydration. After a body burns off fat reserves, it starts on muscle. Both climbers lost some 15 pounds by expedition’s end.
The move from camp 1 to camp 2, at 9,800 feet, takes mountaineers up Ski Hill, a steep face known for funneling bad weather down the mountain.
“You have to be ready for instant change, heavy solar radiation, high winds, and whiteout,” Harz says. Whiteout is what they got. “I called it chasing flags, because all you can do is look for the route flags left by other climbers. Everything else is white and featureless, and it’s highly crevassed and full of avalanches.”
A wrong turn could have taken the two sliding off a ridge to their deaths; a constant threat.
Encountering descending groups, they began hearing news of a disaster, but details were vague. “We heard guys were dead; three, four, five, but no one knew for sure what happened,” Sorenson recalls.
It wasn’t until reaching camp 3, at 11,000 feet, that the climbers learned the scope of the disaster.
“We saw the slide zone, then a helicopter showed up with a search and rescue team, and they looked for the guys from this Japanese team that was hit by an avalanche and sucked down a crevasse,” Harz says. “It was a five-man rope team. One hit a ledge about 30 feet down, the rope snapped, and he was able to climb back out. … The rest of them will be down there, 50, 100, 300 feet, forever.”
Protecting one another’s lives took on new relevance at that point, and they decided that their strength lay in their lack of team members. Working as one man, they could move more quickly, react faster to changing conditions and, given their close friendship, be honest with each other. Embracing this new mentality, they cached all but the most essential supplies and progressed up the mountain alpine style: light and fast.
The two took to traveling at night. Though it was light 24 hours a day, nighttime was significantly colder, making the steepest reaches of the peak a touch firmer, and thus safer. They passed Motorcycle Hill, where the Japanese team joined the list of Denali casualties, and ascended to Windy Corner, a dangerous, tricky traverse on an exposed face on the way to camp 4 at 14,200 feet.
Then, the weather cleared. A weather transmission on the radio said there would be a three-day window of clear weather, the first in weeks. They faced an agonizing decision whether to take the rest day they badly needed, or to push on to make the summit on a clear day. It’s the kind of decision that often divides the living from the dead. They rested.
Reaching camp 5, Harz and Sorenson had one last summit push ahead, but it would be the most dangerous stretch of mountain, passing the Autobahn, a sharp, high ridge named for a German team that slid off, gaining tremendous speed along the way before sliding into the valley below. Earlier this season, another German climber attempted to retrieve his sliding pack, lost his footing and slid down after it.
“After the Autobahn, we had Summit Ridge and Pig Hill, but you don’t feel as on edge. The most dangerous part is over,” Harz says. “It’s a knife edge, and it’s windy, but you just have to stay focused.”
It was nine hours from camp 5 to the summit, but they made it.
“We had a perfect blue day. The weather held for us for six days,” Sorenson says. “That’s unheard of on Denali. We were so lucky.”
“We were the only ones up there. Camp 4 and 5 were ghost towns. So many teams were defeated, but there we were on a perfect day on the summit in blistering cold with all of North America there beneath us,” Harz says.
“It was emotional for me. It was the end of a bad phase in my life,” Sorenson says. “I couldn’t help it, I started crying, which triggered Alex to start crying. … It’s such an emotional release.”
The best mountaineers, the ones who stay alive, live by the mantra that a climb is only half over at the summit, if that. For Harz and Sorenson, the worst was yet to come. While lowering their uncontrollable sleds through fields of mouth-shaped crevasses, Sorenson fell through two snow bridges into hidden chasms. Their rope held and he was able to escape unharmed, though the situation was the most terrifying either climber has yet experienced — trumping a self-arrest Harz made on the way up.
Socked in for days by bad weather back at base camp, their Cessna finally succeeded at getting in after several attempts. It landed, they hurried aboard and took off.
Now, the Harz/Sorenson team only has five summits, five continents, to go.